This is an essay about being a young man.
On our 8th grade class trip, we boarded a charter bus to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. I was an only child and devastatingly young for my grade—I had started kindergarten when I was four years old; this was fine when I was younger, but the age gap grew larger and larger once when I was left behind when “young men” were separated from “the boys.” On this trip, I too, was left behind. I did not have friends close enough to hang out with. Instead, I walked the Inner Harbor, over, and over again. I made multiple laps—from the Barnes and Noble at one end to the Children’s Science Museum at the other. I stopped to look at the seals at the National Aquarium. I walked around the mall, going from one store to another, looking at all of the kiosks selling rubber bouncing balls, perfumes, beeper cases covered in fake jewels. I would linger far too long outside of the Hooters, not daring to walk too close in fear of getting in trouble, or being spotted by one of the cooler kids, who had bragged that they had been to Hooters many times—even had their picture taken with a tank-topped college student in bright orange short shorts. How a breast brushed up against their arm, how they were doing what men did and always did. How they paid for their wings and their bottomless Sprites and how they earned that photograph—earned that touch.
Instead, I walked around with a notebook and a pen and wrote a poem about the seals—how fat and happy they seemed; how there were dozens of them, huddled together on rocks; how nice it must feel to never be alone, to always be that warm.
This is an essay about late registration.
Like Kanye West’s mother, I teach college English. At least two or three students add my class during the drop/add period, which exists for the first week of classes. Some choose to introduce themselves to me, to let me know that they are now in the class and want to know how it is they can catch up to the rest of their classmates—what books to order, what to review before the midterm exam. Other students, typically male, find their seat in the classroom and say nothing, as if they have been there the entire time. Sometimes, I receive an email after a particularly bad grade or a misread assignment explaining that they were unaware of the parameters of the course—that they had registered for the course late and never received the proper run-down, the paper syllabus that I had dutifully copied for everyone in the course. They anticipate that the world begins when they arrive—that the class itself was some strange confluence of object permanence and creation myth; they can’t possibly be held responsible by their lateness, because they have always been on time.
During my undergraduate college experience, I was this student. My second semester of college, I missed the first week of class because I had mistakenly signed up for a macroeconomics class that I had no interest in taking. Instead, I decided to try to fulfill one of my prerequisite courses—an advanced level history class. The theme was on the United States after the Civil War. It was one of the first times that I had been over my head and it shocked me—something in the world that I thought that I was already prepared for. I had to write multiple papers surrounding one particular event—I chose the Great Chicago Fire; how no one knew the actual cause of the blaze, how everyone blamed Catherine O’Leary’s neglect of her cow, how they called her a drunk, how she had hidden the evidence out of guilt. I talked to my mother to exonerate myself from my own guilt—how I had walked head first into something and it didn’t go my way. I blamed the professor; a woman. I took the gap in my transcript, leaving the papers unwritten: of how the most accepted theory as to how the fire started was by Catherine O’Leary’s son, who was in the barn gambling with his friends by lantern light.
This is an essay about what we carry with us.
Once the nursing period is over, a mother shows no interest in her children. The pup stays around, always traveling in packs, hoping that one day their mother will show the same interest they did when they were newly-born.
Kanye blames himself for the death of his mother. It is the only way to make sense of what happened—we always look to the rational to explain the irrational, except when the narrative doesn’t fit: the drunk woman forgot to extinguish the flame and her cow, who should’ve known better if it was raised correctly, kicked over the lantern and burned the whole city to the ground. Kanye also blames the doctor who performed the surgery. The cousin who was supposed to care for Donda in post-op. Her mother’s best friend. Donda’s personal assistant.
A pack of seals, all huddled close to one another in blame and grief, choosing what to ignore.
What will become of me when my mother is gone? What blame will I carry, if any?
There comes a time when we stop showing our mothers our lives—we keep secrets; we put our best selves forward. I showed my mother the poem about the seals. She references my first free verse poem: one about a frisbee fading in color on the roof. Another poem, about football, was referenced at my wedding rehearsal dinner. Late Registration was for Donda—to prove, as she said, “some career goals don’t require college.” Everything that happens after, we ask “what would Donda think?” The poems about my own funeral. The poems about wanting to crack bones with my hands. The post-midnight AIM conversations—the erased browser histories. What would our mothers say?
This is an essay about toxic masculinity.
My mother’s favorite car is a Jaguar—it is something that she has always wanted. These are the facts that we learn about our mothers when we are young; where we are discovering what our favorite things are and we wish to know what theirs are too. This is a fact that has always stuck with me.
That day in 8th grade, in a Baltimore shopping mall, I purchased a Jaguar keychain—it was heavy and looked expensive; I imagine the metal to be brass. A keychain to tide her over until I could actually deliver on the promise of my greatness.
And what a thing to think: that I would inevitably be great enough to afford an S-Type, that this was something that was going to happen in just a matter of time. I would be the next great American author. Maya Angelou. Nikki Giovanni. Turn one page, and that’s where I’d be.
I matriculated to high school the following year—a massive leviathan of a campus with multiple buildings and little care for the students within them. My first semester, my classes were unfairly spaced apart. I had little or no time to unlock my combination (a terror in itself), and even less time to drop off my books and make it to my next class on time. Instead, I decided to carry all of my things for the entire day with me. I had a massively overstuffed backpack. I also carried a duffel bag full of my three-ring binders; taking each and every teacher at their word when they demanded a separate folder for their class. The weight left marks on my shoulders, turned my hands raw.
I spent my days waiting for my time to come, and it never did. We convince ourselves that life is full of checkpoints—that if only I can make it to the next level, things will get easier. Things will be better—the world will reveal itself to you in ways that allow you to manipulate it.
For men, especially, when this does not happen, optimism turns to pessimism. Pessimism turns joy into anger.
Any time we hear about another mass shooting at a school that reminds us of our youth, when we crane our necks to get a glimpse at a burned-out shell of a car flipped over, our minds immediately go to “that could’ve been me”—if we had left a few minutes earlier, if we were born a few years later. This could’ve been any of us.
I feel this deeply when I hear of another suburban white kid radicalized to violence.
I feel the hatred of my own body. I feel myself occupying an alternate timeline where my mother never told me that if I was unhappy I could switch schools—crying as we drove down Pleasant Run Road, not realizing that I had a choice in this path, how she saved me from another. The burden we put on mothers. The burden we put on women to keep us from hurting ourselves before our male egos tell us that we are not the problem.
A timeline where my mother is gone. A timeline where usenet groups were /r threads, where I would raise myself on the feeling of being superior—of being smarter than the world around me because the world around me was confusing. Of Doom WADs, and pick-up artist techniques. Of feeling ownership over all of the things that I love—as if changing the gender of a beloved character is an affront to the world that I have sculpted in my own image. Of educating myself only with things that I believed to be true.
And if somehow, like Kanye, I was one man with all that power—standing in front of a classroom, filling it only with my own voice. To be that far gone.
This is an essay about saviors.
There, too, is a timeline where Donda West is still alive. Where none of this would’ve happened if Donda West was still alive, as if she is the key to all of this—as if “The Old Kanye” would still be here, Benz and a backpack. The lush orchestral arrangements over her chopped-up favorite soul records.
This is too much to place on one woman, but mothers are mythological creatures to sad smart boys like me.
This is an essay about cars.
Two weeks before my wedding, my mother was in a car accident. She was driving to visit my grandmother in the hospital, and ran a red light. The airbags deployed, no one was hurt, but the car: a Lexus, the same brand as Kanye’s 2002 car crash, was totaled. I did not find this out until months after the wedding, on a trip home for a few weeks in the summer, when I received a text to look out for a silver SUV instead of the familiar black. When we got home, she told me everything—about how my mother, a skittish driver to begin with, looks for any reason to not drive anywhere anymore. There would be no reason to fulfill my promise of a sports car.
My mother is still here. Donda West is not. There is no one left to fulfill the promise of going back to school.
This is an essay about Late Registration.
In 2015, when Kanye was asked what he has had to sacrifice for his incredible success, he simply responded my mom.
In what ways have I sacrificed my own mother—the other women in my life? If “Hey Mama” was truly for Donda West, it would’ve never seen the light of day. It would have been performed for her and only her, instead of sandwiched in between a joke about being so poor that your mother had to pretend to be the Christmas tree, and a song about telling his own hypothetical son that his mother had a fat ass and that’s why he exists. For years, I have wanted to not only tell my story, but the story of other people—the story of my family; as if I was the only person who could somehow pull this off. My mother will read this essay about her, but it is not for her.
In 2015, Kanye West received an Honorary Doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He fulfilled his promise of going back to school, but in the half truths we love to tell our mothers—the same way we say this is for you.
This is an essay about my mother.
It is my mother’s birthday in a few days. We have a joke about how all birthday cards seem to “define the relationship”—My Darling Mother. Your Loving Son. This is who we are. This is who you are to me.
This is an essay for me, about my mother.
The day my mother told me that I could switch schools because she could sense my unhappiness, she simply said one thing: you have the right to be happy. If you’re not happy, you have the right to change it. Some days I fear as if I have taken too much ownership. Other days I fear not enough.
This is an essay for me.
But I will scream so loud for you.